Where should England Women play their home matches? A geographical conundrum!
Grounds England have played on (in chronological order):
Sunbury (= London Irish?)
Newbury (2000 – 18 years before the Development XV played there again!)
Old Deer Park Richmond
Twickenham (1st appearance at HQ 2003!)
Imber Court (Met Police)
Old Albanians, St Albans
Allianz Park Hendon
Exeter (still to come)
England, later dubbed the Red Roses, have played at 24 different home grounds. As they prepare for their trip north to play Canada at Castle Park Doncaster, it’s instructive to see how much of the country has been covered in their choice of venues. The very first was played on the Lancashire coast at Waterloo RFC in 1988. Since then, very few have been played north of the Trent. We can spot only Sale and Leeds with one game each. No fewer than three recent England captains, Katy Daley-Mclean, Sarah Hunter and Abbie Scott, all hail from much further north than those two clubs.
In the early years England Women resembled a wandering side, playing at venues that varied from major clubs (Leicester, Northampton, Wasps) to less the familiar (Newbury, Wolverhampton). But large tracts of the nation remained unvisited, not least the West Country
More recently the Home Counties have been favoured almost exclusively (Esher, Twickenham Stoop, Twickenham itself), and this has caused a deal of resentment from elsewhere. You could point to the highly successful policy of the French, who travel all over the hexagon and attract crowds far larger than anything known here.
The RFU has responded to this call. Last year England played Ireland at the Ricoh, Coventry. This season two matches are planned for Castle Park Doncaster and one for Sandy Park Exeter. This is excellent news. In each case the club and community can publicise the match locally in a way that Twickenham cannot.
One of the most pleasing features of the wider Red Roses squad is that they have their roots all over England, from the depths of Devon to the heights of North Shields, from the Medway towns to the Lake District. And they claim they can all understand one another. Clubs in dozens of counties can proudly claim to have a direct link with players who wear the Rose. But how to cater for their demands for an international match within reasonable reach?
Of course, it is impossible to satisfy everyone all the time. There is a limited number of home matches played each year – either two or three in the 6 Nations and a maximum of three in the Autumn internationals (assuming England don’t tour abroad). And the RFU must be sure that clubs applying for a fixture are able to provide the huge amount of back-up that is needed to stage an international.
A final problem: it is every rugby player’s ambition to step on to the turf at HQ. Only a tiny fraction of them ever achieve it. And for England’s opponents the desire is every bit as strong. Where would they rather play: at Twickenham or in some corner of the country where the welcome will be warmer but the memory less strong? So we must assume that at least two games per season will be staged there. It’s a tricky balance the authorities have to keep.
We can be sure there will be the warmest of welcomes in the White Rose county for only the second international to be hosted there.